Foreign Correspondence: It may not be Vilnius, but Edmonds could use a cat café
Lithuania is a little like the Edmonds of the globe. It’s a small, scenic nation with a temperate climate and a bit of coastline; its overgrown neighbors have often threatened to swallow it up; and, while lovely, it’s not exactly a hot tourist destination (sorry, Edmonds).
This past July I bucked the trend and spent some time in the capital, Vilnius. Perhaps it lacks the sweeping grandeur of Paris, or even Prague, but Vilnius has its share of continental charm. There are the cathedrals, and the plazas, and the monuments, but the smaller scale lends the city a more intimate quality. Ever had one of those horrible ordeals where you’re lost in an endless maze of identical side-streets and nobody around you speaks English? (No? Just me?) Well, it’s not going to happen in Vilnius. Wandering around without a map feels less like an invitation to disaster, more like an adventurous ramble. I’m tempted, in the best way possible, to call it quaint.
But wait! There’s more! Want a giant egg statue? They’ve got one of those. Looking for a cat café, where you can play with adorable cats while you drink your coffee? Look no further! The walls of Vilnius are alive with vibrant street art, perhaps owing in part to Užupis. This neighborhood officially declared its independence on April 1, 1997, and perseveres today a “republic” of free spirits and artists. They’ve yet to gain recognition from any government, but it hasn’t stopped them from electing presidents, bishops and ambassadors. They have an anthem and a constitution, whose articles range from “Everyone has the right to love” to “Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate his birthday.” Even the republic’s nonhuman residents are provided for: “A dog has the right to be a dog,” while “A cat is not obligated to love its master, but must help in times of need.” They used to have a standing army of 12, but this was disbanded in keeping with the republic’s nonviolent principles. Incidentally, the aforementioned giant egg statue used to live in the main square until it was auctioned off to the municipal government.
Vilnius is just weird, in that beautiful, spontaneous way that alerts you to the presence of the city’s soul. By contrast, Edmonds—while quaint enough—is almost totally devoid of spontaneity. Lately it seems like everything in the Bowl is coordinated and polished in tasteful beiges and olives and grays (although, according to the Edmonds Mural Society web page, we have one of the most popular collections of murals in the Pacific Northwest! Keep up the good work, neighbors).
People of Edmonds, I’ve seen what Vilnius has, and I want it for us. So what if they have five hundred thousand more citizens than we do? The Užupis neighborhood has a mere fraction of our population, and they’re an independent republic, for goodness’ sakes. The closest thing we have to a constitution is a plaque in that square where they always do the Christmas tree:
“Since February 1907 Edmonds Chamber of Commerce has worked to preserve the small town atmosphere and develop a complete shopping experience. ‘It’s an Edmonds Kind of Day!’”
I’m sorry, what? Don’t our dogs deserve the right to be dogs? Don’t we, as the citizens of beautiful and richly historic Edmonds, deserve something a little more ambitious than a complete shopping experience?
Now I’m not saying we can transform ourselves overnight into the Fremont of Snohomish County, nor do I think we should. And in fairness, Vilnius is flourishing now as the pendulum swings back from decades of occupation and oppression. Their beautiful European architecture is interspersed with Soviet-era hulks of shabby concrete. Young Lithuanians are fueling the country’s renaissance with humor and energy and art. The older generations, kerchief-wearing old ladies and leathery-faced men in sweaters, are the survivors who have endured grim years of war and Soviet rule. Lithuania has been through the fire again and again, and its people have nonetheless held on to their unique identity for many hundreds of years. By contrast, the worst tribulation to befall us here in Edmonds of late has been this Five Corners traffic circle that no one seems happy about.
I admit that, yes, it’s a stretch to compare an ancient European capital to our old overgrown mill town here in Edmonds. But whenever I go abroad and see something I greatly admire, I want to bring it home and apply it. I want to enrich my community. Isn’t that, ultimately, why many of us travel?
In so many ways, downtown Edmonds is the heart of our city. While we will probably never have a giant egg statue of our own, we do have more than enough boutiques. We have enough jewelers and galleries and upscale eateries. Now it’s up to us to defend the little pockets of quirkiness that, so far, have survived the push towards manicured, bland uniformity. The Edmonds shopping experience is about as complete as it’s ever going to get. The small town atmosphere could use some work. And you know that empty storefront where Red Petal used to be? (R.I.P. Red Petal, those cupcakes were great.) If you ask me, that would be the perfect spot for a cat café.
— By Elijah Garrard
Elijah Garrard was born and raised in Edmonds. He is a graduate of Edmonds-Woodway High School and Bowdoin College. He writes about travel, people, and curious goings-on in his monthly column.